June 3, 2009
Revisiting ‘Anne Frank’
Anne Frank, the precocious diarist who died at 15 in Bergen-Belsen, would have been 80 years old on June 12, and Los Angeles is observing the anniversary with two events.
On June 9, the Skirball Cultural Center will reprise George Stevens’ “The Diary of Anne Frank,” marking the film’s 50th anniversary, with two of the surviving stars on hand to share their recollections.
On June 11, 12 and 14, the Museum of Tolerance (MOT) will present live readings from the diary by Asli Bayram, a Turkish German actress who is Muslim and a former Miss Germany.
“The Diary,” written by Anne during the two years she and her family were hiding from the Nazis in a cramped Amsterdam attic, has been translated into 67 languages and has become perhaps the most widely read secular book in the world.
To many school children, in particular, the book has become the main story of the Holocaust, with the author as the Shoah’s iconic figure — a development applauded by many, but raising concerns among some scholars.
As a film, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” based largely on the earlier Broadway play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, was a considerable success, winning three 1959 Oscars and five additional nominations.
Millie Perkins, then a completely unknown fashion model, was plucked from among 10,000 hopefuls for the title role, with Diane Baker as Anne’s sister Margot.
Both actresses will discuss their experiences at the June 9 screening, together with George Stevens Jr., son of the film’s director.
In a phone interview, Perkins, now 73, recalled that she really wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, a sea captain and merchant mariner. Since women were not eligible for these professions at the time, the petite girl became a fashion model for teen magazines instead.
In the best Hollywood tradition, one day a scout for director Stevens saw a photo of Millie and tapped her for a screen test.
At that point, the 20-year-old New Jersey native had never heard of Anne Frank, had no Jewish background and wasn’t particularly interested in a movie career; she turned down the offer of a $250-a-week contract.
She finally gave in when the studio raised the ante to $500, and she remained at that salary level throughout the shooting.
Once Perkins read the diary, “I knew immediately who Anne was; the transference was instant,” she said. “In those days, girls weren’t as sophisticated as they are now; I was really innocent and emotionally inexperienced, and I could fully identify with a 14-year-old girl.”
In October, Perkins will travel to Jerusalem to present her original movie script to Yad Vashem.
A week after the screening, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment will release the film on Blue-ray disc and DVD, with added features.
At the live performances of “Anne Frank: The Diary,” the back story of actress Bayram will add another dimension to her staged readings.
The daughter of a Turkish immigrant “guest worker” in Germany, part of a Turkish diaspora community now numbering 3 million, she early on encountered racial prejudice and discrimination.
One evening, when Bayram was 12 and living in Darmstadt, a drunken neo-Nazi neighbor knocked at her apartment door, pulled out a gun and started shooting, severely wounding Bayram and killing her father.
Soon after, she read “The Diary” and found a special kinship between Anne Frank’s experience and optimism, and her own family story.
Bayram entered the Miss Germany contest in 2005, a rare brunette among the Nordic blondes, and, to everyone’s astonishment, was named the winner.
Starting a career as an actress, she first presented her diary reading in Luxembourg in 2007 to impressive reviews. “Ms. Bayram is emerging as one of Germany’s most convincing and subtle actresses,” wrote The Times of London.
She will join in a Q-and-A session after each of her three performances.
MOT director Liebe Geft, who was first approached by Bayram a year ago, described the actress as “a captivating personality, who speaks beautiful English and sincerely wants to build bridges of understanding.”
Although 64 years after her concentration camp death Anne Frank’s persona appears immutable and the impact of her writing beyond criticism, during the last decade new research and fresh material have given us a much fuller picture of the iconic teenager.
Some academic critics have faulted playwrights and overenthusiastic admirers for turning the young girl into the foremost image and spokesperson of the Holocaust.
“No doubt, Anne was a very talented adolescent and her diary is useful in following her progress from childhood to adolescence,” said professor emeritus Lawrence L. Langer of Simmons College in Boston, who has published widely on the literature and testimony of the Holocaust.
“Anne stopped making entries in her diary before the Frank family was arrested and deported, and up to that point she knew really nothing about the Holocaust, except for an occasional BBC broadcast,” he said.
“Had she survived Bergen-Belsen, she would have been the first to mock her own innocence,” Langer said, scorning particularly the original “sentimentalized” Broadway play, which “isolated Anne completely from her Jewish roots” and ended with her famous curtain line, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Professor James E. Young, chairman of the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of “The Texture of Memory” and “Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust,” agrees with much of Langer’s criticism.
However, he points out that thanks to the release of parts of the diary, originally expurgated by Anne’s father, as well as extensive interviews with her contemporaries, we are now able to form a more complete picture of her personality.
“She has emerged as a much more complicated, mature and nuanced person than we had thought,” Young said.
Geft, of the Museum of Tolerance, rejects any criticism. “Anne Frank represents the 1.5 million murdered Jewish children and she has sparked the imagination of the entire world,” Geft said.
“Of course, you cannot reduce all Holocaust experience to one person, but you can also not take away from Anne that she has had a transformative impact on millions of children around the globe.”
The June 9 screening of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Skirball Cultural Center, co-sponsored by the American Film Institute Legacy Series, will start with a Q-and-A session at 7 p.m., followed by the movie at 7:30 p.m. For ticket information, visit www.skirball.org. The live readings at the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center will be presented June 11 at 7:30 p.m., June 12 at 10 a.m., mainly for school children, and June 14 at 7 p.m. Q-and-A sessions with actress Asli Bayram will follow all performances. For ticket information, visit www.museumoftolerance.com or call 310.772.2452 or 310.772.2505.